Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine play the short embargo game

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On your mark, get set, report!

Should that be some journals’ motto when it comes to embargoes? A month ago, I noted a four-hour embargo at the New England Journal of Medicine. In that post, and in one that mentioned a nine-hour embargo at The Lancet, I wondered how exactly such short embargoes help reporters do a better job.

As the NEJM puts it in their embargo policy, their embargo “gives the media time to learn about a topic, gather relevant information, and interview authors and other experts so they can accurately report complex research findings.” The Lancet says that “a daily press release associated with the article in question will be released at least 24 hours before online publication.”

Well, to quote Ronald Reagan, “there you go again.”

Here’s part of an email from the NEJM sent at 4:09 p.m. Eastern on April 21, 2010:

We will be publishing the following material Online First at 9:55 AM EDT Thursday, April 22, to coincide with a presentation at the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation annual meeting in Chicago. Please note that this material is embargoed until 9:55 AM EDT Thursday, April 22.

That’s 17 hours, 46 minutes to report on this study.

As it turned out, I had heard about the study five days before the journal released the study to the media, from Megan Augustine, someone doing PR for the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation. The email letting me know about that didn’t include an embargo, just the time of the presentation, 8:45 a.m. Central Time.

I found it puzzling that there was no embargo listed, but an email exchange with the Megan cleared it up: Yes, the embargo would lift at 8:55 Central, just after the presentation started.

Fair enough. But I hadn’t seen the paper in any NEJM press packet. So I emailed Jennifer Zeis, who handles media relations for the journal. She replied:

Yes, we will be publishing this article. Our team is working hard to complete the material in time for the presentation, but there won’t be much time for advance access.

That time turned out to be just under 18 hours.

This week, The Lancet beat NEJM, by almost an hour. This email went out early Monday morning, April 26:

EMBARGO: 1830H (New York time) Tuesday 27 April 2010

The value of cancer screening programmes has been a source of much debate over the years. Colorectal cancer continues to be a major cause of death-it is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer worldwide, accounting for more than 1 million cases and 600,000 deaths every year. In new research published in The Lancet, researchers announce findings of a UK-based trial, which started 16 years ago, to assess the merit (in terms of reduction in mortality and incidence) of a single sigmoidoscopy examination in patients aged 55-64 years to screen for colorectal cancer.

The study will be presented at a press conference at the UK Science Media Centre, London, at 10.30am UK time on Tuesday 27 April.

A press release will be issued early UK time on Tuesday 27 April, prior to this press conference.

The embargo for the study and the press conference is 1830H (New York time) Tuesday 27 April.

In response to a question from someone on my staff about when the paper would be released, Lancet media relations manager Tony Kirby wrote:

It will be issued first thing tomorrow morning (around 630am UK time-4 hours before the press conference) along with more information about the press conference.

We won’t be issuing the study before that time.

The full press release, with a link to the embargoed paper, went out yesterday (Tuesday) at 1:23 a.m. Eastern, right around the time Tony said it would. That left 17 hours and 7 minutes to cover it — less than the 24 hours that The Lancet guarantees in their embargo policy. And even that’s a pretty low bar.

Granted, double-digit hour embargoes are better than single-digit ones. If you wanted to be Pollyannish, you might even say they’re making progress since last month. I have to give The Lancet a few points for gathering a press conference, then sending out a recording of that conference, which was useful for getting quotes on deadline. But I’ll take them away for not having any good rationale for making the embargo a few days later. And while NEJM obviously had a hard deadline of the Chicago conference presentation, they didn’t take the step The Lancet did to gather sources for a recorded press conference.

I can imagine press officers are busy, and I sympathize, knowing just a bit about deadlines on a wire service that produces 110 pieces of original content a week. But as I’ve said before, I just can’t understand how these short embargoes help reporters do a better job. Short embargoes force reporters to drop what they’re doing — which just may be writing a story about a study in a competing journal — and focus on your journal’s study. They make it quite difficult to find outside sources who can take the time to review a study critically.

For now, I’ll give journals the benefit of the doubt. A number of years ago, I learned in a surprisingly useful management seminar that it’s important to assume good intentions.

So here’s how journals could prove that they’re really interested in giving reporters time to cover stories as well as possible: Send page proofs, plain text, or some other not-quite-done-and-dusted version of studies. Journalists will understand. Heck, a lot of the journals I review online every week publish dozens of unformatted text versions of papers every month. I don’t mind, even when it sometimes means checking figures with authors an extra time.

If the current short embargo crowd isn’t willing to do that, I’m going to have a harder and harder time assuming good intentions.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

April 28, 2010 at 9:00 am

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